By Barbara Perry Bind
It's fair to say that Riverside resident Natalie Gustafson is focused on food -- literally. For the last eight years or so, as the head of Silver Plume Productions, Gustafson has worked with the likes of food personalities Michael Chiarello and Sara Moulton, bringing the art of cooking and entertaining to the small screen with TV shows such as "Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello" and her latest production "Sara's Weeknight Meals."
Greenwich Citizen caught up with the two-time Daytime Emmy Award winner and asked her about her latest effort and all the ingredients that make up a great cooking show.
Tell us a little about your production company, Silver Plume.
We've been around since 2003 when my friend and colleague, Bob Tuschman of the Food Network, gave us a chance with a show -- "Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello." Since then, we've produced five cooking series for the Food Network, as well as programs for DIY Network, TLC and PBS.
How did you become a producer, and what did you do leading up to that?
I studied journalism with the idea of becoming a print reporter -- but things didn't quite work out that way.
Instead, I got a job as a receptionist at a small radio station, where I had tons of opportunities. I did news and copywriting, and that led to a job writing for Hugh Downs on a public television series in San Francisco.
We interviewed some amazing people, from the Dalai Lama to Bob Hope, but I wanted to get out from behind a desk so I transitioned to another station where I could be a field producer -- traveling around shooting stories with a camera crew.
After I got married, moved to New York and had kids, I just kept at it. I really loved it -- and still do.
You have won two Daytime Emmy Awards for direction of "Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello."
Let me say that there are tons of producers here in town with more awards, more impressive resumes and bigger titles than me (like the executive producers of the Today show and David Letterman!). But maybe the difference in my career is everything I did revolved around being a mom.
I worked freelance and part time for 17 years at ABC all over the building -- "Good Morning America," "Prime Time Live," "20/20," tons of specials and documentaries, but I also worked at "Oprah," "Entertainment Tonight" and "Martha Stewart." It was hard.
There were lots of late nights, airports and crazy deadlines, but I was able to make it to most of the recitals, soccer games, third grade plays and Valentine's parties.
Your most recent show is "Sara's Weeknight Meals" on PBS. What are some of the other shows you have produced? Have you worked with Sara Moulton in the past?
Sara and I worked at "Good Morning America" at the same time, but our paths never crossed. She was Julia Child's producer in the studio, and I was off in the field. So Sara and I didn't meet until we were both at the Food Network, where she was the queen of the working moms. She did "Good Morning America" in the morning, then went to work at Gourmet magazine all day, came home and cooked dinner for her family, then went off to Food Network where she cooked live on-camera for a call-in show, "Cooking Live," for two hours every night. She's clocked more than 1,000 hours of cooking on TV.
There's a lot of street cred behind our series, "Sara's Weeknight Meals," because Sara's walked the walk.
Your focus seems to be on food and entertaining. Is that a passion of yours?
I have to say, my husband is the cook in the family and makes delicious dinners most nights. I'm more of a weekend cook -- I love trying out recipes we do on the air.
And though I landed in the food world through television, I can't think of another topic that is as relevant, interesting and fun. It's about history, culture, health, art, family and community. There's always something to learn.
What are some of the biggest challenges in producing a cooking show?
Planning, planning and more planning. We shoot quickly -- two shows a day -- so every morsel of food has to be bought and prepped, every piece of equipment has to be there, and every backup dish has to be made, sometimes in three or four stages. Any delay can mean thousands of dollars out the window if 20 people are standing around waiting for someone to run out for a rutabaga, so we never let that happen. We have a large and talented back kitchen making sure it all happens smoothly.
And it must be an unwritten rule that if it's the absolute hottest day in July, we will be shooting the Thanksgiving show. It was true this year. Every oven is blasting; the burners are all on; sometimes the air conditioning is off for sound, and the camera guys had these huge, 25-pound cameras on their shoulders pumping out heat.
One time in Napa, we had to go outside to cool off, because it was only 110 degrees out there (and inside, it was 125 degrees)!
And, lastly, do you ever try your hand at any of the recipes from the shows?
I look at food all day long, and it makes me hungry! I have a running list of Sara's food I want to cook.
I always say I went to the cooking school of Michael Chiarello and Sara Moulton and, really, there are no better teachers. On Michael's show, every single episode ended in a party -- I learned a ton.
Now, every Thanksgiving weekend, we self-cater a giant party for 120 of my kids' friends who are home for the holidays and their families. We cook everything ourselves -- appetizers, dinner, drinks. The whole family gets together and busts all that food out of our little kitchen.
"Sara's Weeknight Meals" airs Sundays at 4:30 p.m. on Channel 13, WNET; Saturdays at 2 p.m. on WLIW; and Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. on WNJN.